New Irish Non-Fiction.

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

KILMICHAEL. The Life and Afterlife of an Ambush. By Eve Morrison. Irish Academic Press, 2022. 292 pp.

It is difficult to know where to start when writing about this book. I am of the generation that grew up hearing about Kilmichael. The story we were told was one of a rare win against the British whom our fathers and uncles had tried to force out of Ireland in their time. It was a rare ‘win’ as far we were concerned and it had its ready hero in the very Irish-sounding Tom Barry.

That opinion of Kilmichael was endorsed by Barry’s 1949 book Guerilla Days in Ireland, serialised in The Irish Press and selling in large numbers. If you had your ear to the ground, you might sometimes hear hints of a less than noble encounter, possibly involving what we might today call war crimes. Then came the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the general anti-Republican bias in the media and the wider society brought about by the actions of the Provos and the INLA. Forward still further and we had what we called the revisionism of people like Conor Cruise O’Brien, Kevin Myers, Joe Lee and various historians.

Today, few Irish people below retirement age know about Kilmichael and even fewer care. Here is what we know. The ambush took place on Sunday 29 November 1920, one week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin and Croke Park. In summary, two patrol lorries carrying 17 RIC Auxiliaries and one Black and Tan, were ambushed by a group of 32 IRA volunteers under the command of Tom Barry. When the action was ended, all bar one of the Auxies was dead; one volunteer had been killed and two others died in the next few hours. Those are the bare facts.

In the years ahead, different accounts of what happened were given by survivors of the action. Tom Barry’s account, according to this book, changed in a number of significant ways before his final definitive 1949 book. One of the main points of difference was his contention in that book that some of the Auxies had surrendered, laid down their rifles and then started firing hand guns; there were no survivors.

Other participants in the ambush gave different versions of what took place. Among them were volunteers who said that two of the Auxies were standing with their hands in the air in surrender when they were shot, possibly on orders from Barry. Another told of one man lying on the ground who said he was a Catholic and asked for a priest; he was killed with a bayonet blade to his back.

Barry was a more polarising figure [than Liam Deasy]. To some he was the man who would do things, a bloody good man and a great soldier. Others remembered an abrasive individual, respected but not particularly liked who was notorious for wanting to be top dog in everything, bragging about his military prowess and dramatic entrances: Do you know who I am? Barry’s friends described him as both generous and vindictive.

This book, by Eve Morrison, examines these claims and counter-claims in great detail. She approaches the subject in her role as historian and is generally critical of the Barry account. Towards the end, she writes about a 1998 book by Canadian-born historian Peter Hart, The IRA and its Enemies. In this, as well as taking issue with Guerilla Days in Ireland, he writes about the killings of 13 Protestants in the Bandon area in April 1922, a short time before the beginning of the civil war. He describes those as being motivated by sectarianism; as a result, he would be described as neo-unionist. She herself became part of the seriously ferocious debates about that book as did writers like Stephen Myers and Eoghan Harris.

In the end, a reader is so confused by all the arguments on one side or the other, that the original Kilmichael ambush is almost an aside. In truth, this is the kind of book that may make you thankful that you are not a historian. It is not easy reading.

NABBING NED KELLY. By David Duffy. Allen & Unwin. 413 pp. $32.99

There have been more books written about Ned Kelly and the Kelly gang than about almost any other aspect of Australia. The word ‘Nabbing’ tells what this book is about. It is, as it says in its secondary title, ‘The extraordinary true story of the men who brought Australia’s notorious outlaw to justice.’

It describes the efforts to catch the Kelly gang over a two-year period following an incident involving Constable Fitzpatrick at a shanty owned by Ellen Kelly. After that incident, Ellen was given a three-year prison sentence. The author admits it was harsh and would mean that she would not be released until after her son was executed.

In one of the attempts to arrest the Kelly gang, three policemen Lonigan, Kennedy and Scanlan were killed; the fourth member of their group, Constable McIntyre managed to escape. If those names sound Irish, it is because they were among the eighty percent of the Victorian police at that time who were either born in Ireland or of Irish parents. It is accepted that the force was poorly paid and poorly managed and, in some cases, poorly disciplined.

The incident at Stringybark Creek which resulted in the deaths of the three constables gave impetus to the efforts to catch the Kelly gang; much of this book concerns those efforts. During that period, the gang robbed banks at Euroa and Jerilderie, actions that lasted over several days in each case. It is suggested that after those robberies, there seemed to be more money available for carousing in the northeast of Victoria.

The final showdown took place at Jones’ hotel in Glenrowan. That action resulted in the death of Dan Kelly, Joe Byrne and Steve Hart and the capture of Ned Kelly. There was some confusion among the police leadership as to which of them should be given credit for the final defeat of the Kelly gang. This book gives the greatest credit to a lowly constable named Michael Ward, originally from Roscommon. He was promoted to detective, and his name appears throughout the story, sometimes dealing with agents, sometimes as a plainclothes member or leader of mounted search parties.

Perhaps because the Kellys are almost minor characters in the book, this is an unusual account of the happenings in northeast Victoria in the 1870s. In the final two chapters, the author speculates on who wrote the famous Jerilderie Letter – almost certainly not Ned – and who was responsible for making the armour that the gang wore at Glenrowan.

Many of the stories about the Kelly gang were either made up by imaginative journalists or put out by supporters or manufactured by desperate authorities. What we get here is from the police and official files and as such can be assumed to be closer to how things really were.

LINE OF FIRE. By David O’Donoghue. Orpen Press 2022. 191 pp. €17

David O’Donoghue was born in Cork and grew up in Dublin. He attended Blackrock College, where he tells us he was in the year after Bob Geldoff. His father was an executive with the Munster and Leinster Bank before it was taken over by AIB and did not feel like sending his son to university. Fortunately, the young man was given an apprenticeship with the Midland Tribune newspaper in Birr, Co Offaly; from there he progressed to the Connacht Tribune, based mainly in Roscommon.

During the 70s, he worked with RTE, sometimes being sent to Northern Ireland to report on events there. His background account of the way that stories were put together there, often by drunken revellers late at night at the Europa Hotel , is enthralling. So is his account of events at about the same time in the South. The confrontation between Gardaí and Republicans at Portlaoise prison, for example, was reported from one of the British newsagencies because the RTE cameraman would have been in trouble if he had happened to film an IRA leader addressing the crowd, thereby violating Section 31.

Other decisions made by RTE at the time are also highlighted by O’Donoghue: their failure to cover the 1976 reinternment of Lord Haw Haw in Galway, for example, and their mishandling of the Paddy Donegan – President O Dalaigh dispute two months later. And throughout, we meet Charlie Haughey, though in this book, it is mainly in France in the period when the author was working for Agence France-Presse, AFP.

After the AFP, O’Donoghue worked with various media bodies and commercial publications for different organisations, appearing to have to move around quite a bit through France and Belgium before taking up a lecturing post in the South of England and finally returning to Ireland. The final chapter deals with his time with Century Radio, which lasted only a few years, 1989-1991.

The book carries the subtitle Journeys Through a Media Minefield and will probably be of greatest interest to those who remember media names in RTE and the BBC up until the early 90s. Densely written and rarely enthralling, it will appeal to historians of the period covered.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.